David Johansen -- who was at the Bayou in July -- and Syl Sylvain -- who will be at Desperado's tonight -- are the most visible surviving members of the New York Dolls. During their brief lifetime (1971-75) the Dolls flouted the rock business world with their untamed, flamboyant unprofessionalism. Thinking the time was wrong for their own success, the Dolls' inspired amateurism paved the way for the 1976 New York punk scene, which in turn triggered the 1977 London punk explosion.
As the terms imply, however, you can't remain an amateur if you play music for money very long. No matter how you fight it, you grow more and more accomplished. Some musicians (the Clash, Lou Reed, Johnny Lydon) adjust to this inevitable transition; others (the Ramones, Patti Smith, Sid Vicious) don't. Of the surviving Dolls, Johansen and Sylvain are the two who have matured gracefully into professionalism.
That professionalism has produced two new solo albums that are surprisingly mainstream.
"Syl Sylvain & the Teardrops" (RCA, AFL-3913) is the easier of the two to like because the mainstream that Sylvain chooses is 1963 teen party songs. Remember, the New York Dolls' second and last album, "Too Much, Too Soon," was produced by Shadow Morton, who had played Phil Spector for the Shangri-Las, Ad-Libs and Dixie Cups in 1964. The bohemian sock hop promised by that collaboration is finally realized on Sylvain's self-produced second solo album.
All 10 cuts are so simple, bright and danceable that the album could be a Golden Oldies collection from 1963. The Teardrops (platinum blond drummer Rosie Rex and greaser guitarist Danny "Tubby" Reid) play a brisk, bouncy rhythm and sing sweet "girl group" syllables. The key to the album's authentic sound is Tommy Mandel, whose perfect piano arrangements flesh out Sylvain's simple hooks as Jack Nitzche's arrangements once did for Spector.
The requirements for great party records are sing-along melodies and the sense that the musicians are twisting away amid crepe paper even as they are recording. Sylvain comes through on both counts. The ultimate example is "No Dancin'," where Sylvain tells his girl friend that he won't dance with her anymore and then taunts her with the most danceable music imaginable -- full of Latin horns, beserk piano and drunken shouts.
David Johansen's "Here Comes the Night" (Blue Sky, FZ 36589) is harder to like because the mainstream sound he chooses is modern Album-Oriented Rock. He plays hi-tech power-pop full of mechanical guitars and keyboards in the style of the Cars and Cheap Trick. That he invests the style with more personality than anyone else may not be enough for those who detest the whole genre.
Johansen takes full advantage of the genre's one asset -- its surging sense of larger-than-life power -- and subverts the rest. The surge is provided by guitarist Blondie Chaplin (former Beach Boy and co-composer of seven tunes), the aforementioned keyboardist Mandel and Johansen's co-producer, Barry Mraz, who once worked with Styx. The subversion is supplied by Johansen's gruff, soulful vocals and his slyly mocking lyrics.
Typical of the the album's streamlined power is the title tune. Chaplin introduces each section with a different, high-powered, catchy riff. Johansen gives the verses a growl of anticipation and then leaps into the title cry, "Here comes the night!" with the momentum of inevitability. The song has the speed and excitement of a good movie car chase, but is just as empty of thought or subtlety.
As well as Johansen and Chaplin do hard rock, it is a limited genre and does get a bit tiresome after nine straight doses. So it's quite a relief when the album's last two songs depart from the formula. The lighthearted calypso of "Rollin' Job" and the soulful ballad, "Heart of Gold," are the record's two richest cuts.
Johansen and Sylvain have remained good friends, often playing and writing together when circumstances permit.
One gets the sense that Johansen and Sylvain felt cheated by the Dolls' failure to achieve the stardom so often predicted for them. Their persistence in surviving within the industry may stem from nothing more than a lust for revenge.